African Studies teaching at UK universities

Author: Philip J. Jaggar


African Studies courses are taught at undergraduate level, as single or joint honours degrees, in the following UK universities: the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, the Centre of West African Studies (CWAS), University of Birmingham, and the School of African and Asian Studies (SAAS), University of Sussex. Relevant degrees include African Languages and Cultures, African Studies, African Studies with Anthropology, and African Studies with Development. The first two universities, in addition to the Centre of African Studies (CAS), University of Edinburgh, also offer postgraduate (e.g., MA) courses with a taught component.

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African Studies is recognized as an important part of Area Studies teaching at UK universities, dating from the late 1950s and early 1960s when a number of Africa-oriented interdisciplinary programmes were set up. This was part of a more general (post-war) trend which saw a number of universities establish area or regional studies centres in order to facilitate specialist regional cooperation across disciplinary boundaries. Several universities currently offer undergraduate and/or taught graduate (mainly Masters) degrees within African Studies programmes. There are also a number of UK universities which teach Africa-focussed courses which are located in programmes such as development studies, anthropology, politics, history, religious studies, or postcolonial studies (including literature). A total of 52 Africa-related courses are offered (see Universities and Colleges Admissions Service website.)

Undergraduate programmes

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

SOAS is the only higher education institution in the UK specializing in the study of Africa (and Asia). It has the largest concentration of Africanist specialists of any university in the world and is a leading international centre in both research and teaching. The School's departments group into two categories: (1) language and culture departments (e.g., African Languages and Cultures); and (2) disciplinary departments (e.g. Anthropology) which offer degrees and courses with an African studies component.

The Department of African Languages and Cultures (DALC) has been offering African studies degrees since the 1950s. It teaches five major African languages (uniquely in the UK, see Parker 1986), in addition to more general courses on language in Africa (language planning, lingua francas, minority language death). It also offers courses on African culture/perspectives (from a non-Eurocentric angle), African philosophy, religion and (oral/written) literature (including Caribbean literature and literature in African languages), art, music, film and performance arts. (In partial recognition of the department's contribution SOAS received special Minority Subjects funding from HEFCE in 2000.) The disciplinary departments at SOAS (e.g., Anthropology, Art and Archaeology, Economics, History, Politics, Law) also offer undergraduate courses focussing on Africa.

DALC expanded its degree provision in the early 1990s and now offers four BA degrees: (1) African Language and Culture (4yrs); (2) African Studies; (3) African Language and another subject (4yrs); (4) African Studies and another subject, where "another subject" means anthropology, art and archaeology, development studies, economics, geography, history, law, linguistics, music, political studies, and religion. Students are required to take courses in one of four selected discipline-based pathways: literature, art, performance, or religion/philosophy. Students taking Hausa or Swahili as part of their degrees spend two terms of their third year (year abroad) at a university in Tanzania or (northern) Nigeria, and some students take advantage of the SOCRATES student mobility programme to take courses in other European universities. SOAS's "Strategic Plan" for 2000-03 discusses the possibility of integrating transnational subjects such as diaspora studies, refugee and migration studies, globalization, etc., into African Studies.

Centre of West African Studies (CWAS), University of Birmingham

CWAS offers single African Studies and joint honours undergraduate programmes including African Studies with Anthropology and African Studies with Development (September 2002). Other combinations include: English, French, German, Russian, media/culture, geography, theology, ancient history and archaeology, and history of art. Despite its title, CWAS in fact covers both Sub-Saharan and North Africa.

Year 1 course options include: "Focus on Africa" (compulsory), and introductory courses on anthropology, African history, literature, African environment and societies, African culture, African politics, and Islamic history. Years 2 and 3 offer a very wide, multidisciplinary range of units, including the following: Perspectives on Africa (compulsory for single honours students); Social Anthropology, History and Theory; Social History of West Africa in the 20th Century; South Africa in the 20th Century; Islam: Its Origin and Its Heritage in the 20th Century; Representations of the African Past; Domination and Resistance in Colonial Africa; Issues and Themes in Contemporary African Politics; Gender and Development in Africa; Rural Livelihoods and Development; Interventions in West Africa, African Literature in English; Caribbean Literature; African Popular Culture; African Religion and Ritual; Ghana: History, Society, Culture; Urban Africa (African societies in contemporary contexts). Year 3 students also write a dissertation. In alternate years, CWAS organises (and subsidises) a month-long field trip to Ghana.

School of African and Asian Studies (SAAS), University of Sussex

Students enrolled in SAAS are able to specialize in one of two undergraduate pathways - development studies, or culture and social transformation. Culture and social transformation takes as its central theme cultural change in Africa and the Caribbean (as well as Asia). Courses cover art and literature, and the beliefs, values, ideas and practices specific to different societies. Topics include the study of religion, non-Western medical beliefs and cultural representations in literature.

Taught postgraduate programmes

In the great majority of cases graduate programmes with an Africa-centered component are offered under development studies and postcolonial studies. However, there are three UK universities which teach courses specifically within an African studies degree.


SOAS has offered an MA in African Studies since the late 1960s following the establishment of the Centre of African Studies (1965). The programme (12 months full-time; 24/36 months part-time) is administered by the Graduate School and offers a total of about 30 major and minor options within the academic disciplines of anthropology and sociology, art, economics, geography, history, music, language, law, linguistics, literature, politics and international relations, and religious studies. Students select three taught courses, each of which is examined, and write a (10,000 word) dissertation. Some courses specialize in a region of the continent (e.g. West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa), while others are pan-African in scope but with opportunities for regional focus in case study and course work.

The Centre of African Studies is also located at SOAS and serves to coordinate Africa-based interdisciplinary study and research within the University of London. It has a membership of over 130 Africanist specialists. SOAS also houses the International African Institute which organizes seminars, publications and other means of disseminating knowledge within and about Africa.

Centre of African Studies (CAS), University of Edinburgh

CAS offers an interdisciplinary MSc in African Studies (12 months full-time, 24 months part-time). The programme comprises a core course in social science subjects, plus approximately 20 options, which range from environment to politics, gender studies, and African religion. There is scope for in-depth case study and project work. Students write a 15,000-20,000 word dissertation. In addition CAS provides an MSc by Research (African Studies), which is designed to be self-standing but also to serve as preparation for the PhD and is accredited for the new ESRC 1+3 PhD system. Students take a mixture of courses from the Graduate School of Social and Political Studies and CAS, as well as writing a 15,000-20,000 word dissertation.


CWAS currently offers two postgraduate degrees, the MA, and the MPhil(B). Both degree programs are modularised and include taught elements as well as a dissertation. The MA places greater emphasis on taught modules, e.g. research skills and methods in African studies, advanced perspectives on Africa, history and politics of southern Africa, poetry and performance in Africa. The MPhil(B) has a stronger focus on independent work. MA students obtain 120 credits from taught courses and 60 credits for a dissertation. They usually attend six courses per week during the semester and write a dissertation to the length of 12,000 words. There are currently two MA programs at CWAS, the MA African Studies, and the MA Social Research (African Studies.


Designated research centres only:
African Studies Centre, University of Cambridge
Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford
Centre for African Studies, University of Leeds


Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2002). Area Studies. Gloucester: QAAHE.

Parker, P. (1986). Speaking for the Future: A Review of the Requirements of Diplomacy and Commerce for Asian and African Languages and Area Studies. London: University Grants Committee.

Related links

Website of African Studies Association UK

Website of Centre of African Studies (CAS), University of Edinburgh

Website of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

Website of Centre of West African Studies (CWAS), University of Birmingham

Website of School of African and Asian Studies (SAAS), University of Sussex

Website of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)

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